Mission: When neighbours become good friends

Published 28 January 2014  |  

The mission field is about to be brought to the front door as The Neighbourhood Watch tour traverses the country.

Sponsored by Tearfund, the 5-date tour is bringing together Philadelphia-based activist Shane Claiborne and Northern Irish songwriter Andy Flannagan to talk about social justice.

I spoke to Andy in Parliament to find out more about the upcoming tour and his work heading up Christians on the Left.

How did you meet Shane?

It was through bumping into him at various events. We both have similar passions for justice and speaking up for those who can't speak up for themselves.

Shane is an incredible speaker so it's going to be great to be there. Part of my job will be to set things up for him. Music can do what a thousand words cannot. Music can get people to a place where they're open, I call it God sneaking in through the back door.

How has the theme of mission being brought to the front door played out in your life?

Our journey has been influenced by guys from Urban Neighbours of Hope which has led (wife) Jen and I to intentionally plug in and live in a housing estate neighbourhood. Some of our friends and our folks may not necessarily want us to be there but we feel a call to be there in what is at times a challenging place.

Our neighbour is this guy called Frank. He's been on the block 15 years and when we first started and were trying to organise BBQs and get the community together he was like 'nah people aren't going to turn up'. He was a bit cynical. The first time we did try and organise a party, two people turned up.

It was a total failure. But then a friend of ours pointed out 'the folks you're working with are quite scared to come to a social context not knowing people'. They're not used to typical middle class dinner party conversation.

For the first six months it was trying to get blood out of a stone. A lot of people hide behind their front door, they're a bit ashamed of what's behind their front door. They don't invite anyone in because they don't want anyone to see. So it took a long time for people to trust us. But it's incredible the community that has started. The best example was last year when Frank was standing on the balcony. I call him the 'guvnor' cause he keeps an eye on everything going on. He was looking out and he said 'Andy I think there's a new couple moved in number 271, Tim and Julie. You go do your thing!'

It was this gorgeous moment. He's onto us he knows what's going on! Even more beautiful than that was a few minutes later I was doing the dishes and I saw him walking down the balcony with a box of biscuits going down to 271 to welcome them. You start to realise that the kingdom is a virus that catches.

Much of the Church has woken up to issues of social justice in recent years. How has that been received here in Parliament?

When you think about the explosion of Street Pastors projects, Christians Against Poverty debt counselling centres and food banks, people know where the juice is flowing in their communities.

It's a really exciting time to be walking around Parliament. Members of Parliament know better than most suspect where the juice is flowing in their constituencies.

In a time of economic downturn and services being cut back, MPs are very aware of where the juice is flowing. It's through Christians and churches and Christian agencies.

Is the Church better at actions than at words?

I think the challenge for the Church is to find the right language to explain what's going on. For too long we've been stuck with these two cul-de-sacs of evangelism and social action but they're actually both parts of the same agenda. The agenda is holistic transformation.

I've been sat in too many rooms when Christian agencies have talked about the physical aspect of what they do but not the invisible aspect. So we've got a generation of politicians who aren't aware of why we do what we do and aren't aware of the internal transformation we want to see.

The kids who live in our estate - you can do all the computer training and multimedia training in the world but actually you know the bigger things that are going to have an influence on their life is what they believe about themselves. Do they have meaning and purpose? Where do they fit into the big picture?

The Church is doing so much on the ground to help people. But where are we weak?

I'm hearing a sense of tiredness because people are going 'we have to be passionate about trafficking, debt, economics and there's a list of thousands of things. We're already supporting Christian Aid and Tearfund, where does this all stop? We want to lie down! We can't do it all.'

This is where the neighbourhood thing is so important. Where people are plugged in serving neighbours and those people becoming your friends you don't need a project to help them holistically, you just do things because you're their friend.

You're going to share what you think is important. You're going to share your faith, give them advice and help them practically with food just because you're there and you're their friend. This is where the scripture 'love your neighbours as yourself comes alive for me'. You don't have to start three or four projects, you're just being a neighbour.

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